By Brian Love
PARIS (Reuters) - France's Socialists are distancing themselves from Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the ex-IMF chief, once their best-placed presidential contender but now dogged by sex assault accusations, prepares to return from the United States.
With elections eight months away, the main opposition party is torn between old loyalties and the desire to shield itself from Strauss-Kahn's tarnished reputation, after a poll showed two thirds of French voters do not want him in government.
U.S. prosecutors have dropped charges that Strauss-Kahn tried to rape a New York hotel maid. But the 62-year-old still faces a civil case and an accusation of attempted rape by a woman 30 years his junior back in France.
He has promised to offer the French an explanation when he returns, possibly as early as this weekend.
In the three months since police pulled Strauss-Khan off a plane in New York, several of his most loyal allies have deserted him to back other left-wingers hoping to unseat conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The maneuvering has shifted up a gear in the days since the U.S. charges were dropped, leaving the former finance minister free to leave the country.
French media say he is due back on Sunday and Francois Pupponi, mayor of the town that long served as Strauss-Kahn's political base, said he would be home by early next week.
Martine Aubry, a leading Socialist contender for the April presidential election, sought to distance herself from Strauss-Kahn in TV appearances this week, saying she shared the feelings of other women about his behavior toward the female sex.
While careful to underscore that she defends the presumption of innocence, her allusion was interpreted by French media as a signal that she would not let herself be hurt by association.
"I've always said this: first there's the presumption of innocence and secondly I think the same thing as many women regarding Strauss-Kahn's attitude to women," Aubry told Canal+.
ALLIES FLOCK TO HOLLANDE, AUBRY
Of Strauss-Kahn's closest allies, Pierre Moscovici, a former Socialist minister, has dropped him to become campaign coordinator for the left's new favorite, Francois Hollande, and veteran leftist Jean-Christope Cambadelis is backing Aubry.
Jean-Marie Le Guen, a Socialist lawmaker who was vocal in his support of Strauss-Kahn just after his arrest in May, and another old ally, Lyon Mayor Gerard Collomb, have also joined Hollande's camp.
"The fact is: as soon as (Strauss-Kahn) appears, he will be seen as the man who had sex with a New York hotel maid," said a Socialist party official close to Aubry.
Others with less at stake in the upcoming election campaign have been more blunt, notably Michel Rocard, a former prime minister who is no longer a kingmaker in Socialist politics.
Rocard ruffled feathers on Monday when he said of Strauss-Kahn on Canal+ TV: "The man obviously has a mental illness, trouble controlling his impulses. He's out of the game. It's a shame. He had real talent, that's true."
An opinion poll published last weekend suggested that about two-thirds of French voters do not wish to see Strauss-Kahn take a government role if the Socialists take power in next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.
The Ifop poll, conducted on August 25-26, following the dropping of criminal charges in New York, nonetheless showed that about half of pro-Socialist respondents would be happy to see him take up a ministerial post.
Right now, the more pressing worry is the Socialists' mid-October primary contest than Socialist hopes of unseating Sarkozy and his government next year.
Arnaud Montebourg, another contender in the Socialist primary, said Strauss-Kahn should apologize to party colleagues and voters in the same way he did with International Monetary Fund staff in Washington.
"He should make the same gesture after the toll we have all had to bear in this affair," Montebourg told i<tele TV.
(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet and Elizabeth Pineau, editing by Rosalind Russell)